The Colonial City as Inverted Laboratory in Baumgartner's Bombay and the Calcutta Chromosome

By Thompson, Hilary | Journal of Narrative Theory, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Colonial City as Inverted Laboratory in Baumgartner's Bombay and the Calcutta Chromosome


Thompson, Hilary, Journal of Narrative Theory


Prologue: Cities of Invention and Intervention

When one thinks of politicized Uterary texts of the end of the last mülennium, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities does not immediately come to mind. However aesthetically influential its lyrical urban thought experiments may have been, it would be unusual to consider the work a particularly sociaUy engaged text. And yet its language found an unexpected echo on September 10, 2007 when Teng Biao and Hu Jia issued their open letter to the international community, 'The Real China and the Olympics." Whereas Calvino's work focused on Marco Polo's journeys in the East and his reports to Kublai Khan on all his visited cities, most of them puzzlingly given classical names, the open letter focused on one Eastern capital city and the apparent transformations the inherited classical tradition of the Olympics would bring to it. But both Calvino's and Teng and Hu 's descriptions are organized by a play of foils and reversals or, we might say, a logic of duality and peripety. Calvino's Polo gives us, for example, Anastasia, the city full of alluring objects that is in fact feeding off the desires of its inhabitants, so that "you beüeve you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave" (12). Or there is Valdrada, the city built on a lakeside, bound to its mirror image, but in a relationship void of pleasing symmetry and marked rather by enmity and inversion: "The two Valdradas Uve for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them" (54). Or finaUy there are Eudoxia and Perinthia, one possessing a divine carpet showing the city's "true form" and the other planned precisely on a map of the heavens (96). In the chaotic, cacophonous Eudoxia that bears no apparent resemblance to the harmonious carpet, one is forced to conclude "that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness" (97). In the celestially planned Perinthia, one finds "cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women" and yet "the worse cannot be seen; guttural howls are heard from ceUars and lofts, where famiUes hide children with three heads or six legs" (144). The city planners must admit errors in their mapping of the heavens or else "reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters" (145). How remarkable then that a rhetorical mode so similar to this supposedly magical realist style would have provided a way to address the international community, with Teng and Hu explaining to Olympic travelers of the world,

When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modem stadiums and enthusiastic people. You will see the truth, but not the whole truth, just as you see only the tip of an iceberg. You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood.

To make visible the city that the world doesn't see, a rhetoric of urban invention is necessary, as though the speaker has to reconstruct the city's world before a viewer's eyes.

To cite a second brief example, we can see Calvino' s Perinthia even more precisely resurrected in Khaufpur, India. A prospective traveler can go to Khaufpur.com ("Khaufpur: City of Promise") to learn of the city's geography, its Mughal history, and its current entertainment scene. But no one can ever reaUy go to Khaufpur. The city and its website are the inventions of author Indra Sinha, who wanted a fictive analogue to Bhopal for his novel Animal's People. Sinha is passionately concerned with the püght of the people of Bhopal foUowing the infamous Union Carbide disaster of 1984 in which a pesticide plant leaked tons of toxic gas into the city, kiUing and poisoning many thousands of inhabitants. And yet Sinha firmly chooses the path of invention, creating not only the fictive city, but the remarkable narrator, Animal, fated by the toxins to walk on hands and feet, and his guardian, the semi-deranged French nun Ma Franci.

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